With the emergence of “tuned” carbon wheels, you now have more options than ever, yea like we needed more options. However, these options are now becoming more and more specific to what you really want in a wheelset. In the past, all-carbon wheels boasted about how stiff they were and that was pretty much it. Strength and weight played a factor but there was no doubt that the stiffness was the top priority. That has now shifted and there are two major options pushing not only the thought process behind carbon wheels but also what will help innovate our bikes just a bit more.
First to the game is Crank Brothers with their Synthesis wheel line. These wheels have a much shallower profile than your typical carbon wheels and are actually specifically tuned for the front and rear. Next up was Zipp releasing their 3Zero Moto wheels which took the idea of Crank Brothers to the extreme. Not only are they rocking a very shallow profile, but that is because they are single-walled. This allows for a massive amount of compliance, and really make you change the way you think about carbon wheels
For our test, we decided to do back to back runs on the 3 most popular type of carbon wheels currently on the market. The majority of carbon fibers wheels aside from the Crank Brothers Synthesis and Zipp 3Zero Moto, use a traditional “Box” section rim profile and lend themselves to be very stiff. We wanted to test a traditional Box-style rim, with both the Crank Brothers and Zipp wheels. By doing this, we wanted to see what the benefits were, if one happens to be significantly faster or smoother and if I could really even notice a difference at all. For the Box style wheels we chose to use the E13 LG1R EN wheels, as they are very stiff, but also fall around or slightly under the price range of the other wheels, we also previously had tested each of these wheels on their own, so we were familiar with them individually.
WTB provided some rubber for us to use on all the wheels so we could keep the test as similar as possible with the only exception being the changing of the wheels. I wanted to run a tire that wasn't overly beefy or big in volume so the wheels could really do their job and I could feel a difference. So that tire was the WTB Trail Boss 29 x 2.4, in Light/Fast casing and rubber.
Starting with the Zipp wheels, I did 2 runs on each wheelset, going from Zipp to E13 to Crank Brothers, and then back to one last run on the Zipps. In doing so, I wanted to feel the differences, and then once I was used to them, see if could go push it a bit more on the second run around.
As mentioned above, we have reviewed each of these wheels individually, so for full specs and thoughts check out those reviews. I'll keep the information light here, starting with the Zipp wheels. The Zipp wheels are the most compliant wheels in our test, and as far as I know on the market. Taking a totally new approach to carbon wheels, both the front and rear wheels are single-walled rims. This allows the rim to not only take square edge hits better, smoother, and has less chance of pinch flatting a tire, but also allows the rim to flex side to side. Zipp calls this ankle compliance, and if you think about your ankle on an unsmooth surface, your ankle will allow the foot to move side to side to remain balanced and provide “traction”. The theory is the same as the Zipp wheels, there is more compliance, giving the rim and tire more contact with the ground, and therefore more traction and predictability. For more information on the Zipp 3Zero Moto check out our video here.
The Crank Brothers Synthesis wheels take a new approach, but with a box design. They take the two wheels individually, front and rear, and tune them for the specific loads they are going to take. The front wheel gets a lighter carbon layup, with fewer spokes at 28h, and a slightly wider internal width of 31.5mm. The rear wheel gets a stiffer carbon layup, 32h spoke count, and a slightly narrower 29.5mm internal width. By doing this, Crank Brothers have made a front wheel with more compliance to keep you pointed in the right direction, as well as have the rear wheel stiff and tracking in line. The result seems to be the best of both carbon wheel variants. For more information on the Crank Brothers Synthesis E11 check out our video here.
These E13 carbon wheels offer a stiff Box style carbon wheel, that will be stiff and take impacts as you would hope a strong carbon rim would. As far as innovation goes they are pretty standard within the market. For more information on the e*thirteen LG1R EN wheelset check out our blog here.
This is what I was most excited about, seeing if I could really notice a difference between each style of wheel. First up was the Zipp wheels, after spending the previous weekend on them at the local bike park, I was already used to them and ready to ride the trail. The trail we rode is a short 2-minute trail that offers a good amount of rough Socal terrain. It's one we often ride as a warm-up, an extra lap, or to get a feel for a new bike, part, or suspension test. With two 100 yard sections of chunky rocky singletrack, I thought it would be a good trail to see how these wheels really feel when it's rough. Along with the rough sections, there are a few tricky corners, an off-camber section, a couple of g-outs, flat corners, and a 10-foot little jump at the bottom.
The Zipp wheels felt great, smooth, and I was able to easily hold my line and had zero issues. But I was already used to them so the real test came when I put on the next wheel, the e*thirteen LG1R EN. Going from the most compliant to the stiffest, I was hoping I would see a difference, and I definitely did. Through the first few corner I had a hard time staying on line. The rough section right after proved to be much more bouncy than on the Zipps but by the bottom of the first lap, I had adapted and was riding like normal. On the second lap, I didn't have any issues holding a line and the wheels felt fast, really fast. However, they were stiffer and I also noticed I rolled the rear tire about 3 times, something that didn't happen when pushing the Zipp wheels in the same g-out, corner and jump lip. This could be a combination of things, I was more comfortable and was pushing harder, the rim is stiffer making the tire do more work, or I actually just took a bad line and rolled a tire. Hard to say, but I did roll the tire, didn't burp it, but close to it.
Next, I threw on the Crank Brothers wheels, I had the most time on these leading up to the test after running them on my bike for about 4 months. While I knew how they rode, I didn't know how they would ride back to back with these other wheels on this trail. The Crank Brothers didn't take a lap to get used to like the E13 wheels and right off the bat I felt fast and could push my speed with confidence. Not once did I get knocked off my line or roll a tire. Both laps on the synthesis wheels I felt fast and smooth while also noticing how balanced these wheels felt front to back on my bike. Without knowing my times during the video, I felt the fastest on these and would have bet my last run was going to be my fastest yet.
The final run on the Zipps, was just for feel as I wanted to see how the Zipps felt after riding the other two since I started with them and it's hard to compare the first laps. This might have been the most eye-opening lap as the Zipps really do feel quite a bit different. It's hard to put into words, yes I could say compliant like I have 100 other times in this article, but bare with me, the wheels felt quiet. Not really the noise quiet, but the feedback from the wheels into the bike and the rider, they are quiet. Smooth and comfortable, the Zipp 3Zero Moto are by far the most comfortable wheels I have ever ridden.
At the time of the riding and testing, I didn't know the lap times at all. Not that this is the most scientific way of doing it, but part of the test was to see if there was a speed difference. After doing 7 laps, the times were separated by a total of 8 seconds from the slowest to the fastest. I'm not a pro, nor am I the fastest of the guys I ride with, so take all these as additional information to form an opinion.
Zipp 3Zero Moto:
E13 LG1R EN:
Crank Brothers Synthesis E11:
After looking at the lap times, what I thought right after the last runs, was about true. The crank brothers, and the last run ended up being the fastest by 1 second. What I was surprised about is that I was actually consistent in my times, and there were no real outliers. The e*thirteen wheels provided the third fastest lap and were only 1 second slower than the slowest of the two Crank Brothers times. I was a little surprised by the Zipp wheels, even though I didn't feel fast, that is often when you can pull the fastest times. Smooth is fast. As I mentioned, these times are only part of the equation and shouldn't be your reason behind purchasing any one of these. There are many other factors, the main one being that this is only a 2-minute trail with not too many sketchy corners, I think that is where the Zipp wheels can really improve some speed.
Now for my opinion, who would benefit from what wheel, and what I would choose to ride if I could choose? None of these wheels are bad in any way, they all have a purpose and depending on riding style, skill, and preference could all be great options. For myself, I really prefer the Zipp or Crank Brothers for most of my riding. Being a lighter rider at 150lbs, I lean towards compliance and traction, vs all-out stiffness and strength. The Zipp, despite the fact they were slowest in the test, I think would make the best all around wheels for most trail riders. They really just work amazingly at what they are designed to do. All-day riding, any terrain, the Zipps will take the abuse and not your hands. Second would be the Crank Brothers, and if I was fast and racing all the time, I would probably choose these all the time. Not only because they did provide the fastest times, we already said im not perfect, but because they have the best handling to stiffness out of the 3. They really do just feel fast, you're able to push them hard and keep your thoughts on the trail ahead, and that is what a race wheel needs to be. The e*thirteen, while not my top, would be perfect for riding some flow trails or big jumps. The stiffness of these would match perfectly with that kind of terrain. Unfortunately, I don't have too many flow trails or jump lines for my local riding which is why they are not higher up. I also think the E13 wheels would be amazing for a bigger rider, as I said I am only 150lbs and a rider that is 180-200+ and is aggressive would really benefit from a stiff wheelset.
After testing, riding, talking about all these carbon wheels, we have formed our opinions and we still couldn't choose a clear winner. That is because there really isn't one. Each different wheelset really has their place on bikes and riding styles. From the most compliant of Zipp 3Zero Moto, to the stiffest of E13 LG1R EN, and in the middle with Crank Brothers Synthesis E11, they all perform great. You just need to decide what you want, fast, smooth, or stiff? Yes, I went fastest on the Synthesis, but I felt most comfortable on the 3Zero Moto wheels. What is your goal with riding and how do you want your wheels to perform? We like them all.